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  • DMO Insights – July 21

    In this edition:

    This week, there’s a very real chance that our country’s social and physical distancing behaviors over the Fourth of July weekend – or the lack thereof – will really begin to rear their head much like they did in the weeks following Memorial Day weekend to kick off our current upward trend in new cases. 

    With the holiday weekend starting on July 3, and factoring in up to two weeks of incubation plus a few days to receive test results, we’re sitting on the precipice of when cases transmitted over the Fourth of July weekend should present themselves. 

    Applying that same logic to Memorial Day, when you factor in that the holiday weekend began on Saturday, May 23, add two weeks for incubation and another three days for testing results, you arrive at June 9 as the date when cases should have begun to really spike. And spike they did, as the number of new cases in the U.S. on June 9 was 17,376. According to the CDC chart HERE, no single day has been that low since. In fact, since then the 7-day average daily number of new cases has more than tripled in the U.S., from 21,590 on June 9, to 66,022 on July 18.

    The big question now is whether all of this will result in another broad shutdown, which seems to be the direction we are headed unless the situation somehow quickly reverses course.

    We’re already seeing restrictions tighten further in many states and counties, and in the absence of broad change such as the polarizing implementation of a national face covering mandate (during an election year, no less), states, counties, and even cities will take it upon themselves to protect their citizens.

    Except maybe in Georgia, where the Georgia Governor is suing the Mayor of Atlanta over her recent order requiring masks in public. 

    Thanks, as always, for reading, and we hope you continue to find value in this newsletter.

    DESTINATION ANALYSTS’ WEEKLY SURVEY FINDINGS

    Not surprisingly given the current state of affairs with regard to new cases in the U.S., the wearing of face coverings, and their requirement (or not) among destinations is a primary focus of this week’s survey findings from Destination Analysts. Along those lines, there are signs of hope – among travelers, at least – that the use of face coverings combined with an increased emphasis on social and physical distancing, and other safety measures implemented in an effort to stem the tide of rising case numbers, will result in an improved situation over the next month and well beyond.

    Optimism gap sees a slight correction: Maybe they are being too optimistic, but for the first time in more than a month the gap narrowed between those who believe the situation will get better in the next month, and those who think it will get worse. This week saw that gap narrow by 5.5%, as 59.8% of respondents currently believe the situation in the U.S. will get worse or much worse (vs. 62.7% last week), while 16.4 percent feel it will get better or much better (vs. 13.8% last week).

    Declining excitement to travel: Despite the slight narrowing of the optimism gap, the number of people who are ‘excited’ about the notion of taking a trip in the next month declined for the third straight week. Only 41.1% of respondents indicated they would be excited if a good friend or close family member asked them to take a weekend getaway in the next month, down sharply from a high of 57.7% at the end of May. Making things worse, only 36.6% feel open to travel inspiration right now – the lowest level since mid-April.

    Read my lips – (most) people support face coverings: Get what I did there? Read my lips? Hard to do unless you’re one of the 7% of respondents who ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ with the statement that “in this environment, people should wear face masks when they are in public.” Almost three quarters agree that face masks should be worn in public, while two thirds say they always wear one while out. Side note: face masks are kissing lipstick goodbye.

    Mask mandates widely welcomed by visitors: When asked how they would feel if a destination they wanted to visit required visitors and residents to wear masks while in public, 67.4% responded with ‘very happy’ (41.3%) or ‘happy’ (26.1%). When you also factor in those who are neutral on the topic, 90.5% have neutral or better feelings about the requirement of face coverings by destinations. Of the 9.5% of respondents who indicated such requirements would make them ‘unhappy’ or ‘very unhappy,’ just over half indicated that this requirement alone would be enough to keep them from visiting. And I’m okay with that.

    Pandemic etiquette won’t go away anytime soon: Over the next six months, and likely longer, 68.8% of travelers plan to wear a face mask during trips. While we’d like to see that number much higher for the safety of our communities and those who visit, the number continues to increase and will likely keep doing so. Social distancing (63%), avoiding crowds (61.6%), and carrying hand sanitizer (59%) are some of the other top pandemic etiquette behaviors that travelers stated they intend to practice over the next six months.

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    THE MORAL DILEMMA OF TOURISM DURING A PANDEMIC

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That’s what it can (and does) feel like for many destinations right now. After months of zero or near zero visitation, leisure travel has returned in earnest, and in some instances, it feels like the floodgates have been opened. How, then, do destinations balance the urgency and pressure to generate much needed revenue and economic recovery, with the responsibility of protecting the health and safety of the community and its residents? It’s a moral dilemma that is being debated across the globe, including at some of the country’s most popular leisure travel destinations.

    Moral or ethical dilemmas are not new to tourism, with sustainability and overtourism often being at the center of the debate. According to the American Psychological Association, “moral dilemmas are challenging because there are often good reasons for and against both choices. For instance, one could argue that it is okay to kill one person if it would save five, because more people would be saved, but killing itself is immoral.”

    While we’re not talking about killing people – at least not willingly or knowingly – the predicament we find ourselves in is extremely challenging nonetheless.

    At DVA, we are fortunate to call one of the West’s top leisure travel and outdoor recreation destinations home. Right now in particular, Bend is proving to be a strong case study – or test tube, if you will – for tourism and recovery marketing during the pandemic. In response to an extremely high influx of leisure travelers over the past several weeks, and compounded by rising case numbers in Deschutes County, the City of Bend recently issued an administrative order strongly encouraging visitors to stay away until Sept. 7. 

    While the administrative order in Bend stops short of being an official travel ban, it’s a bold move for a destination and one that specifically asks operators of hotels and other lodging facilities to refrain from booking any new tourism or vacation-related reservations.

    It should be noted that this order was implemented by the City of Bend and not by Visit Bend directly, though Visit Bend supports the order, has been a strong proponent of safe and responsible travel throughout the pandemic, and issued a statement in response that read in part, “We fully support the reinstatement of travel restrictions, and we’re adding additional messaging to the website underscoring the importance of staying home and staying safe.”

    The order was met with mixed reactions from local tourism and hospitality industry businesses, many of which are desperate to make up for lost revenues through the remainder of the summer travel season, while at the same time protecting the health and safety of themselves and their families, their employees, and residents.

    Is this the case of one forward-thinking community sacrificing short-term gain for the long-term health of its community and its tourism industry? Or is it a sign of bigger things to come in the form of more widespread travel quarantines throughout the country for out-of-area visitors, formal bans or travel restrictions, fines for non-compliance, and other penalties and sanctions?

    In this case, we think both scenarios may be true.

    The destination marketer in us desperately wants to believe that travel and safety can coexist. But as residents of a tourist town, the realist in us knows that not all visitors share the same respect for a destination as the people who call it home. And we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that many local residents also struggle to practice proper pandemic etiquette. 

    It’s a difficult problem to solve even under the clearest of circumstances. These decisions are particularly challenging at the community level, and are much easier to follow (though no less difficult to swallow) when mandated by or handed down from state or federal agencies. Regardless, it’s a storyline that we have been helping several destinations prepare for and navigate as visitor numbers increase and case numbers show no signs of slowing down. It’s a textbook moral dilemma, and one that is coming soon – if it hasn’t already – to a destination near you.

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    INVESTING IN RESEARCH – WHY NOW IS A GOOD TIME

    When we see such an immediate and monumental shift in short- and long-term consumer behavior like the one we are currently in the midst of with COVID-19 and its impact on leisure and group travel, the initial (and often appropriate) reaction is typically to circle the wagons, survive the onslaught, reprioritize and regroup, and ultimately, recover.

    With budgets and resources stretched thin, it goes without saying that recovery marketing is a critical area that no destination can afford to get wrong. And that’s where research can be instrumental right now in helping to establish a new baseline, identify and hone in on changes to consumer behavior as it pertains specifically to your destination, and emerge more informed, efficient, and effective with regard to your audiences, their motivations, your competition, and more. 

    There is no shortage of research available about COVID-driven changes and trends related to travel in general, but that data is typically sourced from a vast audience and uses broad brush strokes to arrive at some pretty general conclusions. Case in point: the weekly Destination Analysts research that we regularly report on in this newsletter which, while valuable, tends to present findings on topics applicable to an entire industry as opposed to a specific destination – your destination.

    As an agency that relies on research and data to inform, advise, and market destinations based on the specific goals, challenges, and opportunities that are unique to them, we often find it difficult to apply general findings to individual circumstances. At least, not in any manner that is truly actionable.

    That’s where research specific to your destination, particularly as we hit the reset button on consumer behavior with regard to travel, can be instrumental in providing a clearer understanding of how your audience and their motivations may have shifted including:

    • – Awareness & perception
    • – Key destination assets, attractions & attributes
    • – Message priority and testing
    • – Consumer intent
    • – Audience demographics & psychographics
    • – Competitive landscape (new and emerging)

    If your current research is more than two years old, it’s definitely time to seriously consider allocating resources toward gaining new insights. Particularly with the changes we are seeing and will continue to see. You might be thinking to yourself that an expensive research project is something you can’t afford to pile on top of already strained resources, but at a time when every dollar matters most, it’s also a time when you can’t afford not to.

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    SUCCESS OR FAILURE? MONETIZING ROI DURING A PANDEMIC

    How do you measure the success of a DMO during the pandemic and recovery? It won’t be easy, as 2020 will forever appear as an anomaly in our tracking, reporting, and monetizing of the results of a destination’s marketing efforts. It will be impossible to accurately compare year-over-year numbers vs 2019, and the same will be true for year-over-year vs. 2021 and potentially even 2022 depending on the dent that COVID-19 carries into next year (air travel and group business being good examples).

    We won’t be able to rely on the usual metrics such as occupancy, RevPAR, TRT collections, and other metrics, as the data is too skewed. The same goes for indicators such as site traffic, impressions, and even clicks, as much of that data has been and continues to be situational-based and focused largely on maintaining awareness versus driving specific actions or conversions.

    While measuring and monetizing the ROI generated by marketing efforts may not be easy or even possible in an apples-to-apples way under the current circumstances, the biggest and best value of a DMO right now may very well lie in strengthening its role as the trusted leader within its community and among its constituents.

    Local businesses are looking for guidance, direction, and even hope. City and county leaders – the primary funding source for most DMOs – are looking for reassurance that dollars are being used wisely and appropriately. And entire communities want to know when an industry that drives so much economic benefit will return.

    These past several months and the months that lie ahead have been and continue to be the time for destinations to focus less on ROI and more on reconnecting and strengthening relationships with their communities, evaluating the type of destination they want to be, who they want to attract, how and when they want them to visit, and how they want to position or portray the destination. It’s also the time to shore up existing relationships with funding bodies, city, county, and state governments, and to strengthen your position of authority and confidence at a time when people are desperate for leadership.

    While generating a return on investment will always be paramount to a DMO’s success and longevity, now is not the time to be determining success or failure based on traditional metrics. 

    Rather, right now is the time when DMOs are proving their true – and in some ways their greatest – value. It’s an ROI that can’t be measured or monetized through TRT collections, on a spreadsheet, in a budget, or through increases in clicks, conversions, impressions, or site visits. But it’s just as important, and is one that will endure long after the pandemic is behind us.

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    Recent News

    Summer vacation plans stay the course in spite of COVID-19 spikes – CNN

    Virus upends tourism marketing, sparks idea of ‘safecations’ – Associated Press

    Poll: Who always wears a mask in public, and who doesn’t? – National Geographic

    Domestic U.S. tourists flout quarantine & face mask orders – Reuters/Skift

    Should anyone in the U.S. be traveling right now? – Skift

    Useful Links

    Key Survey Findings – Week of July 19 – Destination Analysts

    Marketing That Brings Meetings Report – Destination Analysts

    Expedia 2020 Summer Travel Report – Expedia, July 8

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